Iron Man

A musician-turned-blacksmith finds his niche.

Mark Johnson knows the value of doing a man a favor. Not quite a decade ago, Johnson was considering starting a new business, having spent 16 years with Kroger and just as many playing bass in local bands. He was handy with tools, with a background in electronics. So when a neighbor asked him if he could build an iron fence for a driveway, Johnson took on the challenge. Less than five years later, he found himself owner of Apex Ironworks, a business that, after three expansions, now calls a 12,000-square-foot warehouse home and counts among its customers the city of Germantown.

Apex specializes in the marriage of two elements — security and convenience — that don't always harmonize. A homeowner may want an ornamental driveway gate to keep children and dogs in (while keeping intruders out), but one that can be opened by remote control. Which is where Johnson's background in electronics enters the picture. Among the several hats he wears for Apex (the company has a fulltime staff of merely five), Johnson builds and installs the card-swipers and motion detectors that coordinate a gate's moving parts. These jobs must comply with fire-department regulations. "We don't want a fire truck driving over these gates," says Johnson with a chuckle.

As Johnson spent the first few years of his new career building iron fences in his Central Gardens garage, he was astonished at the niche he discovered. "Every one we built, we built a little better," he reflects. "I thought that I wouldn't be able to compete with bigger companies, but the more I did it, I learned that a lot of people would rather deal with someone who's not a salesman. I'm the person who's going to make the fence, and if there's a problem, you've got me to talk to."

Johnson focuses on enhancing his ironwork with a powder-coated finish (as opposed to painting) and smaller details like punched channel-bars (which hide the welding that connects vertical bars to horizontal units). "I care about the product," he says. "I tell people, even if they don't hire me to make a fence, this is what you need to look for. Ornamental ironwork is not all created equal." Apex also utilizes argon-MIG welding in its fabrication process for seamless welds. "It has to look slick and polished up close," says Johnson.

In terms of cost, Johnson says a standard six-foot iron fence will typically run between $45 and $50 per foot. Apex also custom-designs security doors, but with the process requiring more hands-on craftsmanship, a single door costs upwards of $1,000. "We don't do it the cheap way," notes Johnson, "because it's just as easy to do it right. Our fences' biggest enemies are cars and trees, something striking them. Other than that, they'll last indefinitely."

Last February, Apex was hired by the city of Germantown to construct and install 450 decorative street signs, the largest single job the company has taken to date, and one that should be completed by the end of June. (Johnson says a standard job will take four to six weeks and Apex manages around 10 jobs each week.) "When you have a city contract," explains Johnson, "there are a million guidelines to follow. Everything's got to be just so. We've tried to not only meet them, but go beyond."

His days on stage behind him, Johnson counts his blessings to be making a living with skills he developed as a youngster. And the secret to his success is as simple as answering a friend in need. "If you just show up," he says, "and do what you say you're gonna do, and make a good product, the rest will take care of itself.

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